Written by Pete Martin
The safari truck rattles nosily to the salt mounds at the side of the lake, past the remains of the finish line of the Paris Dakar Rally that recalls a safer time.
The legendary race now takes place in South America due to the currently unstable and unsafe route from the French capital to its end point here in Senegal. Bright white piles of salt shimmer in the sunshine. Before I can take anything in, two old women in traditional dress pester me to buy bracelets from the bowls of goods they carry on their heads.
Located only one mile across the dunes from the ocean, the closeness to the seawater and its subsequent evaporation causes Lake Retba or Lac Rose (meaning Pink Lake) to have a high salt content. As I walk over the snow-like landscape of the salt mounds to the edge of the lake, I am amazed that the water really is pink.
It is as if the water transforms its colour from blue to pink and back again. It’s fascinating. I am struck by the beauty of it.
Olivier, my Senegalese guide, explains that bacteria, dunaliella salina, are attracted by the salt and these bacteria create a red pigment in the sunlight, resulting in this strangely alluring effect.
Olivier negotiates a short boat ride across the lake. Malik, our driver, looks afraid but we convince him to join.
I am completely amazed by the pink water. It contrasts perfectly with the white salt, the golden dunes, the deep blue sky and the dark skin of the locals.
In the water, salt miners stand neck deep shovelling the salt with their feet and their long spades to a point marked with a stick, ready for it to be then scooped from the lake into the waiting baskets in their canoes.
The boatman explains that the target is seventy baskets per boat and that it takes about four hours to fill a boat. The miners work in the water until they no longer have the strength to carry on, at least six to eight hours a day. Their wives work on the shore, usually with their babies tied on their backs.
The salt is left to dry on the shore and then is shovelled into bags for sale. A couple of the immersed miners talk to us as they work. Olivier and our boatman translate from Wolof, the local language, for me.
Whilst the bacteria causing the rose effect is harmless, nevertheless, as the men spend so much time in the water, they coat themselves in shea butter to protect their skin. It’s an absolutely amazing sight, something I didn’t think I would ever see.
Back on land, the two trinket women return. As they talk with us, one discovers that she is Olivier’s aunt and the other is a sister-in-law of Malik. None of them have ever met before.
I buy a sand picture from our boatman of the lake for one thousand francs (£1.29) and give it to Malik to commemorate his first trip on the lake. Both Malik and the boatman are happy with the arrangement.
I’m happy too; just to be here.